Rika Residency Reflections: ESCAPE the Musical

Written by Anastasia Onyango

I find myself humming “hii ni story ya Jamo” long after rehearsal has ended. It’s a catchy, standout lyric of the soundtrack for Escape: The Musical. This week, I have had the pleasure of supporting a diverse group of artists as they workshop writer Sitawa Namwalie’s play about a young man—Jamo—who escapes prison and is hiding underneath the bed of the warden. As a stage manager for the past five years, I have immersed myself in creative spaces that use theater to communicate abstract concepts like community, independence, freedom, and love. I have coordinated festivals that give emerging playwrights an opportunity to refine and elevate their stories. Still, my work has only focused on straight plays (i.e. plays driven entirely by dialogue). This residency has given me a behind-the-scenes look at what exactly goes into a process that has intimidated me in the past: creating a musical. 

The multi-generational artists have relied on their talent, ingenuity, and personal lived experiences as they construct melodies, harmonies, and beats that further the plot. One prime example of this dynamic collaboration was Wednesday afternoon as the team considered Jamo’s “identity song, his anthem.” The track presents Jamo as a self-claimed “mongrel wa Nairobi” and highlights his emotions and hopes to just belong. Singer-songwriter and actor NVini suggested listening to Shaggy’s Church Heathen to gain inspiration. Here was a prime example of how all ideas were valued as building blocks toward the ultimate vision. Because as the group listened, guitarist Timothy Arinaitwe vocalized a sharp redirection from the reggae rap: what about a ballad? The lead composer and resident Sheng’ expert Lness Akwabi emphasized the need to keep the tune “big” as this was the chance to frame Jamo to the audience. Despite the medium of a ballad, this high energy seemed effortlessly accomplished as student Maya Oluoch-Olunya joined in on the violin, producer Eric Wainaina on the keyboard, and African contemporary artist Liboi on the kalimba and udu. I was so impressed by how singer Kendi Nkonge and the sound engineer Mbogua Mbugua Mbugua guided the brainstorming and use of creative elements like key changes, vocal layering, and tempo to signify tone, mood, and emotional intensity. Even more, it’s been incredible to see how this work has pushed the artists out of their comfort zones, like actor Ngartia who has found himself singing rather than his usual rapping and helping integrate Kimeru into the lyrics.

Although Jamo’s signature song might suggest he is the sole reason for the title Escape, the name also incorporates the lives of the two other main characters: Mbogori and Wanja. Mbogori– the warden–feels trapped working at the city prison, missing ushago and the love of his life: his first wife. Wanja–the warden’s second wife–needs a release from the abusive marriage, the thankless routine of shouldering all things domestic, and the inability to define herself on her own terms. Altogether, it is easy to see how the characters, their actions, and the play’s resolution pushes audience members to interrogate the norms of society. Indeed, as I spoke to Sitawa about the motivation for the musical, she explained the unfortunate culture and infrastructure that has led Jamo, Mbogori, and Wanja to each of their realities. Escape: The Musical showcases the greatest potential of art: communicating a pressing, and thought-provoking reflection about the human condition. I understand what it takes to arrive at that point as the artists in this residency begin at 9am and end at 8pm and I can’t wait to see how Escape realizes its potential to impact Kenya’s culture and arts scene. 

Check out the video of our Escape Residency below: